LeBron James' return to Madison Square Garden for only the second time since he bypassed the New York Knicks for the Miami Heat last summer isn't exactly a footnote around here yet. He'll get booed Thursday by jilted Knicks fans same as he did in mid-December, when he was jeered every time he touched the ball and still dropped a triple-double on New York in Miami's 22-point win.
But the sight of James back in New York would sting a lot more if the Knicks hadn't come out of the Summer of LeBron a damn sight better than nearly everyone else who chased him and lost.
Look at the New Jersey Nets, who were left shut out in the big-game free-agent hunt. Look at Cleveland, loser of 18 straight. Then look at Knicks president Donnie Walsh, who brought in Amare Stoudemire and hard-nosed point guard Raymond Felton, found the Knicks a rookie starting shooting guard out of the second round (Landry Fields) and acts like he's not done yet.
The overhaul Walsh has accomplished in the seven months and 44 games since LeBron stiffed the Knicks isn't enough to say "LeBron Who?" Nor has Walsh's next move come fast enough for Knicks fans who wanted him to get Carmelo Anthony to town yesterday. But give Walsh his props: His patience on the Melo front has been justified. Anthony hasn't gone anywhere else, either.
Walsh has handled the Melo chase better than, say, big-talking Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov or Denver's rookie general manager, Masai Ujiri, who still has never swung a single NBA trade in his life. And it shows.
While Walsh keeps turning up at courtside as poker-faced as usual, casually floating the idea that he might just go after a big man like Marc Gasol instead, or repeating (as he did Sunday) that "I'm not going to blow up this team for one player" -- even Anthony -- watching Nets and Nuggets management blunder and bluster through their attempts to convince Anthony he should agree to play for the Newark/Brooklyn Nets was like hearing someone start a joke, "So, two NBA greenhorns walk into a bar and ... "
Both the Nets and Nuggets suffered on the floor because of the drawn-out, far-too-public nature of the talks. Ujiri was mocked across the league two weeks ago for reportedly threatening to send Anthony to the Knicks if the Nets didn't stop leaking information about trade talks.
Word around the NBA has always backed up what Walsh has suggested. With the trade deadline still a month away, the Nuggets' demands continue to be too slippery and/or unrealistic. And the Nets, in their hunger to make a splash move, were the only ones who seemed to believe if Prokhorov could just get Anthony to agree to a sitdown talk after making the big gesture of hustling back from Moscow for their meeting, the Russian billionaire/industrialist/playboy would be able to charm Anthony into forgetting he'd rather play for the Knicks.
Except Anthony wouldn't even take the meeting.
So much for all that street cred Prokhorov and Jay-Z were going to call on to hypnotize everyone from James to Anthony into playing for them, only to end up with the likes of Travis Outlaw instead.
Who knew the shrewdest guy in the mix for Melo would be a 69-year-old Knicks GM with a bad neck and artificial hip?
LeBron is a bit to blame for some of the Melo ridiculousness, if only indirectly.
One of the lingering, perverse side effects about the way James had so many teams bouncing and tripping over each other before his Miami decision is it's expanded everyone's idea of what abnormal is --- or isn't -- anymore. Our ability to register shock has waned. Just a couple years ago, before the Summer of LeBron, could you have ever imagined an NBA universe where one team (in this case, the Nuggets) would consent to letting another team try to wine and dine its superstar player away during the season, as it was contending for a division title?
And did you see this? On Sunday, the New York Times and others reported that tickets for Monday's Nets-Cavaliers game in Newark sold on StubHub.com for as low as 48 cents apiece by game time. That is not a misprint. Forty-eight cents!
Remember Prokhorov's boast that within five years the Nets will have taken over New York and won an NBA title? Better get on with it, the clock is ticking ...
Among LeBron's failed suitors, even the division-leading Chicago Bulls -- who moved on by signing Carlos Boozer -- have improved only three wins more than the Knicks have this season over last. (The Bulls are plus-8; the Knicks plus-5). Already, the Knicks are just six wins shy of matching last season's total of 29.
All of it just goes to show that while it's tempting to shriek about how Walsh is standing pat on Anthony, he's been smart to work on Donnie Time for a change after being on LeBron's timetable the previous two years. If anything, there's a bit of quiet valor in Walsh not leaping at a quick fix like Carmelo, considering Walsh doesn't know if Knicks owner James Dolan will pick up his contract option come April rather than summon Isiah Thomas back from the great beyond.
Dolan would get his BFF Thomas back in charge. And that would be stupid. What Walsh has given Dolan back, even without LeBron, is a playoff-bound team that's just a few players away from contending again. And like we said, Walsh isn't done yet.
Considering how low the Knicks' franchise was before the Summer of LeBron and before Stoudemire, the team New York will send out Thursday against James ain't all that bad, now is it?